Shane Stapleton: 'Where have the goal-scorers gone? Rackard's record safe as danger men brought further out the field'
Like the firing of a bullet or the clapping of thunder, a sliotar exploding into the twine of the net can alter the expressions of thousands in an instant. There's little in sport to match that moment when ash meets leather with murderous intent. Yet, as the game evolves, we must ask: where have the goal-scorers gone?
The answer is that this modern iteration of the game is marginalising the man with the killer instinct, and it would be difficult to pinpoint a player or team coming through with the antidote.
Consider this, the six top goal-scoring players still active in championship hurling are all over the age of 30 and perhaps the most lethal of them all, Joe Canning, has not found the net from play for more than 1,000 days.
In some ways, his most recent strike sums up where we're at. Clare were operating with a sweeper in the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final, but the throw-in for the second half required players to line up in their traditional formation. Johnny Coen won the restart, Davy Burke then ferried possession forward before Canning waved his wand to find the net. Galway briefly had no sweeper to bypass and the talent to make the chance count.
That was the most recent of Canning's 17 championship goals from play (27 overall), in a game where he was named in the half-forward line. It's a decision Micheál Donoghue made at the start of 2016 in an attempt to free up his talisman from the stifling environment around the D. Of those 17 goals, 16 have come in the seven seasons when Canning was primarily posted in the full-forward line, yet Galway's biggest successes have come when he's been at half-forward.
Decommissioning him as a goal threat was a necessary evil to ensure the team play with more variety, to give Canning more room, and ultimately it helped to end their famine.
Five of the men examined here hit their first championship score in 2008 (Joe Bergin in 2006), and there's little doubting that Seamus Callanan's goal record is the most impressive. Not only have all 27 of his come from play, but 53 per cent of his total scores have come down this route. Again, no other free-taker can compare.
Liam Sheedy gave him his debut at centre-forward 11 seasons ago, and the returned manager has restored Callanan to this role once more. On the face of it, taking a man who averages a goal every 116 minutes away from the danger area seems unwise, but the opportunities inside have dried up to the point that it makes sense. Teams are protecting the D, deploying sweepers, bringing back wing-forwards, sitting midfielders, all to avoid conceding game-changing goals.
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Lar Corbett, who topped the goal charts for three seasons running and played alongside Callanan for many years, thinks the attacking environment has become much more difficult.
"When I watch the likes of Seamie Callanan playing full-forward nowadays, let's say in 2017 and 2018, I just felt so sorry for him," says Corbett. "It's often three backs up against one forward, and he's there chasing and hooking and working his arse off going 40 yards trying to get a block in. The backs hold all the cards.
"We scored seven goals against Waterford in [the Munster final of] 2011, but I just don't think that's going to happen now with the way teams set up. So teams are taking their points instead. I want to see Seamie one on one, and defenders marking their man. If you think of him when he first came on the scene in 2008, he was scoring goals in most games in his first two seasons. Fast-forward ten years and he got no goal last year and only scored in one game in 2017 (a hat-trick v Dublin)."
Corbett (29), Richie Power (14) and Ben O'Connor (8) all showed an eye for goal during their hurling careers. They agree that modern systems have had a big impact. In any other era, Patrick Horgan might well have scored far more than nine from play and no doubt he's disappointed with a return of just one across the past five summers (versus 14-man Limerick in Munster 2018). Indeed, his overall tally would be much lower were it not for a hat-trick against a woeful Laois in 2011, who Cork hit for 10-20.
"Ten years ago, fellas were not as fit, and the ball was not travelling as far," O'Connor explains. "Look at (Limerick wing-back) Diarmaid Byrnes scoring three or four points from play, shooting from all over the field. The day of the target man is gone. You used to put the ball into him but it's all about working to a plan now.
"There was a time when a slow lad was played full-back or in the corner and there would be a weakness there. But no player is slow now, so maybe that's why it's harder to score goals. The set-ups too, especially with a sweeper, but they have to be good: Tadhg de Búrca is always there to pick up the ball.
"If you're a back now and you have a sweeper, all you have to do is break the ball and the sweeper will collect it. If you're a forward, you have to win the ball, control it or catch it, and then you have to beat the man to get in on goal. So that's much tougher for the forward."
When asked who tops the list of dangermen nowadays, Shane O'Donnell is the first name on Power's lips. Eleven goals for Clare is no mean feat for a 24-year-old who, over the years, has often been out-numbered in a two-man full-forward line. Power continues guessing who might be on the list: "Joe Canning, TJ . . . jaysus! . . . Horgan?"
The list is then revealed to him. "I should have thought of Callanan; that's some record, especially with them all being from play. I don't know what to say. But in the last two or three years, the goal threat from Callanan is gone. He's taking points now and not going at the man like he was in 2014. Some lads get a bit older and maybe think their pace is gone. I don't know. The stats show how it's gone. Goal-fests are gone.
"The days of a corner-forward winning a ball, turning his man and going at goal are now non-existent. In my head, every two out of four balls, I wanted to take on my man, it keeps them thinking. That killer instinct and eye for goal, I just don't see it in the players now. They're taking their points from distance, and it's taking from the game.
"You think of players like Eddie Brennan; we used to target that period right after half-time when you want to go at them, go for goal, and finish them off. It's worrying that it's gone from the game; it takes from the excitement."
Now that the Joe McDonagh Cup has been added to the tiered hurling structure, we are left with a top-level hurling competition where arguably nine out of the 10 (Carlow aside, with respect) could conceivably win the All-Ireland. If anything, in such a competitive environment, goals may now be even harder to come by.
A forward can no longer be just a goal-poacher; you must be seen to be working. Nor is it as simple as winning your own ball either, because the day of launching in 50-50 deliveries is on the way out. Consider the approaches of Sean Moran of Dublin, Limerick's Declan Hannon or Colm Galvin of Clare, they want to create from deep with precision. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and any team that hasn't noticed will come up short. Simply look at Tipperary since winning the 2016 All-Ireland, where a lack of variety to their direct play proved costly, and how Galway's insistence on hitting high ball to Johnny Glynn throughout 2018 meant Limerick could successfully plan for this eventuality. With such a reliance on work-rate, speed, measured passing, and athleticism, the burly inside man has largely become redundant. Dan is perhaps yesterday's man.
"Route one is gone too," Power adds. "Limerick can mix it by playing it short or going long to Aaron Gillane, who is a ball-winner. In our day against Tipp, we went route one to the square and that's how we got the majority of our goals."
"There's rucks and more rucks, and the work-rate is up," Corbett says. "Wing-backs are going from '45 to '45 all day, it's like Gaelic football. Whereas before, you had your own area and you had to win your ball. Now, once teams are in possession, it's about picking out a man, it's about the percentages instead of a 50-50 ball."
So what's next? Is Callanan to remain in the half-forward line where Reid and Canning (currently injured) are now posted? Will Shane Dooley, who has found the net twice from play in each of the last three seasons at the top level, with a poor Offaly team, continue to do so in the Joe McDonagh Cup? Can Joe Bergin, still just 31, continue his incredible goal-scoring run? Will Horgan still pick off his points close to goal?
What's truly striking is that so many of the top attackers in the game, men you might ostensibly consider goal-getters, have not proved to be such. Conor McDonald, John Conlon and Conor Whelan have five goals apiece, Conor Lehane and Jason Forde just four, while Austin Gleeson's three is a mite ahead of Alan Cadogan (2) and Gillane (1). Nicky Rackard's record of 59 will be safe for a long time yet; of course, the sport of his era is scarcely comparable to now.
"That's nuts, they don't have a massive tally at all," says Power of the current generation. "It's amazing. I'm trying to rack my brains to think when I last saw a lad get the ball 30 or 40 yards out, head right for goal and bang it in." Rare though it may be, it was in attempting to do so that Canning picked up his injury against Waterford in the league semi-final. All the same, Power's finger is on the pulse.
"It's getting worse and I can't see where the goals will come from in certain teams," he adds. "Kilkenny don't seem to have that pace, except maybe Wally Walsh and maybe Billy Ryan, and Colin Fennelly coming back from the club. You'd be hoping Colin would bring the fear factor, but we're struggling after that."
No inside forward has won Hurler of the Year since Corbett in 2010, and it's notable that the two most recent recipients, Cian Lynch and Canning, started their careers close to the square before collecting the accolade from further out the field.
"Everything changes," says O'Connor. "Waterford used the sweeper and all the clubs in Ireland followed suit. Then someone finds a way around that and it changes. In five years, someone will try something else and then that will stop working too. Everything moves on."
Corbett feels the current state of affairs "would depress a lot of lads going into championship", but he understands that the game and players must forever evolve. He went from 19 goals in three seasons (2009-'11) to being held scoreless by man-marker Jackie Tyrrell in the All-Ireland of that latter season, to then failing to register at all in 2012 (a brief retirement hindering his form) and then drawing a blank in the opening 2013 championship game. His old running buddy, Callanan, necklaced together 16 goals in the summers of 2014, '15 and '16, when he was three times nominated for Hurler of the Year, before finding Daithí Burke a suffocating presence in the 2016 and '17 clashes with Galway.
"You have to change," says Corbett. "Seamie got goal after goal so he was targeted, so you have to ask teams other questions. After 2009, '10 and '11, when I was moving and losing my man, other teams starting man-marking us but we didn't change. We didn't ask them questions another way. I'd like to see Seamie further out the field and ghosting on to breaks."
If the old maxim 'take your points and the goals will come' is to again ring true, managers and players need to pose fresh questions.
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